Jess and Joe Forever, a recent co-production between Farnham Maltings and Orange Tree Theatre, is currently on tour. When the company was in Richmond, Orange Tree Theatre’s Literary Associate Guy Jones talked with writer, Zoe Cooper, and director, Derek Bond, about romcoms, Ovid and the magic of being a teenager.
Guy Jones: Zoe, could you tell me a bit about why you wanted to tell this story?
Zoe Cooper: I was really interested in Ovid and magic and the power to transform. In Ovid women turn into birds, and trees; people shapeshift. At times he employs a mode of writing called free indirect speech, which he uses for female voices. Women and queer characters (although he wouldn’t have called them queer) don’t get a voice in work by his contemporaries. And then I was thinking about Norfolk, and that there would be something great about creating magic in landscape that was very flat, and grey, and isn’t cute or dramatic. And finally there was the magic of teenage-hood – the edge place, the last time you can really believe in magic.
Derek Bond: Also that’s when magic happens. Anyone who’s ever been a teenager knows that the transition from child to adult is seismic. Your body changes, your perspective, the loss of innocence. You become aware of your body in a way that’s about fitting in and social norms, and people feel a growing anxiety about how their bodies are different to other people’s bodies. A lot of times it’s horrible and upsetting, but it could be magical.
GJ: As well as being about moments of change and transition, it also feels to me like you’re exploring what it is to be on the fringes of things in so many ways – in terms of your class, or geography, or sexual identity.
ZC: One of the things I wanted to do was write absolutely in my own voice. I live in Newcastle and I love writing for those theatres and those audiences. But with this play I wanted write a character that had my accent and was from my part of the world, which is Twickenham. Jess arrives in the play with a sense of her own superiority as a sophisticated London child but as she’s launched into this world in Norfolk she has to face up to the fact that she doesn’t know everything, and that in many ways she has had a very sheltered middle class upbringing. In a way Joe has a lot of authority – he knows how the countryside works. But in another way – because of his identity – he’s definitely on the fringes.
GJ: And for this play to have come to life and have a long run in London, followed by a regional tour – does that feel curiously appropriate for a play which explores the relationship between the centre and edge?
ZC: We talked about the Orange Tree from the start. We felt that it would be great for this.
DB: And we also said wouldn’t it be great to take it to rural communities. I grew up in a tiny village in Worcestershire. The idea that there are venues now which thanks to organisations like house and Farnham Maltings, can get theatre like this, is really exciting. We can take the play to places which wouldn’t normally get new writing.
ZC: It’s not just about good quality work. It’s about work which honours the fact that rural communities are not necessarily conservative.
GJ: The mode of storytelling in the play is distinctive. Where did that come from?
ZC: Jess and Joe was commissioned by Old Vic New Voices originally, and they had quite a clear brief for it: they wanted it to be an hour long or a bit over, and they wanted it to be for a younger audience. It coincided with what I wanted to do next. I’d started to employ direct address in my plays because I was a bit bored with the fourth wall and this felt like a play where the characters absolutely had to tell their story themselves.
DB: I’ve also become a bit bored of the fourth wall. I’m doing three shows this year, and they’re all in the round. I’ve found myself finding ways to break the fourth wall in all of them.
GJ: What is that a response to?
ZC: I wanted to write plays that acknowledged the audience. Because I don’t live in London, and a lot of my friends don’t work in theatre – or necessarily go to the theatre as much – I am always particularly interested to hear what they think of the plays we see together. One of the things they always seem to comment on is how strange and old fashioned it seems to perform whole plays without ever allowing the characters to acknowledge that they are being watched. I was also really encouraged by the work of other writers that have broken the fourth wall, like Caroline Horton, Charlotte Josephine and Lucy Kirkwood.
GJ: What were the challenges of this kind of writing?
ZC: Trying to create drama. With the direct address you have to make sure they don’t just say all their feelings. How do you create unreliable narrators in a way that’s interesting? I’ve wanted to write queer characters for a really long time, but the plays that I’ve seen are issue-driven plays – you have the monologue where a character says ‘I feel so alone, I just want to come out, transition’. I hate that, but with direct address you can very easily back yourself into that corner.
DB: What I love about a play where there’s direct address is that it makes the audience a character. They’re an actual part of the experience, a participant in what’s going on, not just a spectator. It makes me think of Daniel Kitson, who went from a world of stand up where you’re directly addressing an audience, to the work he’s been doing recently where he blurs the line between standup and theatre. There’s something really very pure about someone standing on a stage and telling you a story.
GJ: You mentioned romcoms. How much are each of you aware of genre when you work?
ZC: There’s something familiar about genre: the coming of age genre. Poets have it easy because they have, say, a sonnet, and that’s the shape of the poem. They can pour everything into it but there are limits. Young writers really need those limits. But in theatre we’re not always great at putting limits on things because we don’t do genre. Lots of writers have got rid of the three-act structure, but it’s really useful to have that shape.
DB: It’s useful to identify the form of the story: it’s a mystery. There is something that these characters are not telling us, and as the play goes on we get closer and closer to finding out what that might be. So it’s a murder mystery, but with something in the will-they-won’t they of a romcom.
ZC: I had felt that I wanted to be taken seriously and so I shouldn’t write jokes. But I like romcoms more than I like any other kind of film. There was a chasm between that and the kind of things that I was writing. So I was creating work, not that I wouldn’t choose to go and see, but that wouldn’t necessarily make me go ‘Oh brilliant’.
DB: I think there’s a similar thing with directors. Up until a few years ago I was doing a lot of new plays in which dead children featured largely – abuse, grief. And then when I started to do some comedy, I found that I really enjoyed it. I realised that was okay. It didn’t make you less of a director if you didn’t reduce everyone to tears.